"The time gives it proofe": paradox in the late music of Beethoven




Imeson, Sylvia Maureen

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It is a given that the late works of Beethoven occupy a special place in our musical life; that they continue to speak so directly to audiences more than a century and a half after they were written says much for the universality of their appeal. Although the music of Beethoven's final decade is much appreciated today, some early listeners found the coexistence of apparently contradictory aspects in these works to be very difficult to understand. Analysis that would attempt to do justice to such complex music must take into account the interplay of both form and content, thus broaching the question of how music can communicate that content. Since music has no lexical capacity, it is helpful to consider analogies from other fields in an investigation of the problem. Myth, alchemy, Jungian psychology, and seventeenth-century religious poetry are, like Beethoven's music, engaged with the exploration and communication of meaningful human experience; to deal with such issues requires a means of expressing the inexpressible, and so at the core of ideas in each of these fields is the paradox. Paradox, an apparent self-contradiction that carries with it the implicit possibility of its resolution, is a self-referential phenomenon. That paradox is present in Beethoven's music has been recognized in a general way by a number of scholars, but a more detailed examination of this aspect of his compositions offers new insight into their construction and content. A precedent for Beethoven's use of musical paradox is found in the reflexive works of Haydn, although Beethoven's use of the technique developed into a tool capable of being applied to many more types of compositional situations, and with a much greater expressive range. An adaptation of William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity offers an introduction to the use of paradox in Beethoven's works, while two extended critical essays, on the string quartets opp. 132 and 130, develop a multidisciplinary critical framework in order to provide a more detailed examination of the utility of paradox in shaping the overall narrative design and expressive structure in these two compositions, and by implication, in many others of Beethoven's late works as well.



Paradox, Communication and the arts